Turgeon: “We’re a good defensive team, but we were just a step slow” Three Takeaways from Maryland’s season finale against Alabama

(Photo Courtesy of the NCAA.)

As the first half ticked away and Alabama continued to run up the score, things began to look grim for the Terps. And as the Crimson Tide swished their seventh three of the contest, head coach Mark Turgeon’s frustrations were bold through his expressions. 

It was a three-point opportunity made possible by an offensive board. Donta Scott made a mistake, and Turgeon let him know. 

After Alex Reese yanked it down, Turgeon pointed out Scott’s laxed, poorly positioned box out effort, and stomped in anger. When Jaden Shackelford splashed a three off the kick-out pass from Reese, Turgeon fumed, threw a punch at the air and signaled to the spot where Scott missed out on an otherwise easy rebound.   

The anger was only the first stage of grief for Turgeon. Down nine with momentum on Alabama’s side, the Terps were losing ground in the match and he knew it. There were fleeting moments of hope, but the outbursts of frustration eventually cooled down to blank, accepting stares as the Tide continued to stretch the lead and finally run away with the win. 

Alabama was just better, but the Terps failed to capitalize on the opportunities they had to give themselves a chance. 

So, consequently, the “grind of all grinds” came to a screeching halt Monday night. It was an early collapse and long plummet about as devastating as any Maryland contest this season — and it came during the most important game of the year. 

The lowly No. 10 Terps were trounced by No. 2 Alabama, 96-77 and are headed home after the round of 32 for the second time in three years.  

“We had no answers tonight,” Turgeon said. “We really had no answer.”

Here are my three takeaways from Maryland’s season finale.

Catching the Crimson Tide on the wrong night 

Though Alabama has struggled from behind the arc the entire month, it was only a matter of time until its fortunes flipped. And to the chagrin of both Maryland and its fans, the Crimson Tide regained their prophetic shooting touch against the Terps.

From the opening tip, Alabama was as fast as advertised. The Crimson Tide shot and drained every shot imaginable from three; of the dribble, off the catch and from NBA range — each a product of its blistering speed in transition. 

The torrential downpour began as Josh Primo and Alex Reese drained back to back threes to give Alabama its second lead 10 minutes in. It continued, with extra flare, as John Petty Jr. and Josh Shackelford took turns sinking threes early in the second frame to extend the lead to 20. 

The duo took and made two triples each, in five Alabama possessions and around a minute and 40 seconds of gametime. They ended the contest with a combined 41 points. 

“The start of the second half was like everything they threw up went in,” Turgeon said. “It took a little bit of our Mojo out of us, but I think they were really good. And we were just a little bit off our game, but you got to give them credit.”

Alabama hit just five three pointers two days before and 12 in the SEC Tournament championship. The Crimson Tide finished just one three pointer short of matching their combined 17 threes of the last two games. And it wasn’t without improved efficiency either, their 32% average from range in the two games jumped up to 48% against Maryland.  

The game’s silver lining came in the fact that the Terps didn’t play as poorly the score may have indicated. While Aaron Wiggins played the game of his life, posting a career-high 27 points, Maryland kept its head above water and shot over 50% from the field and coupled it with a 37% mark from three that lasted throughout the match. It was also the eighth time they eclispled 75 points this season. 

The Terps were just outclassed. Maryland’s seven-point lead in the first ten minutes was an early attestation that Maryland belonged in the round of 32, while the 30 minutes that followed signaled that the Tide was destined to be in the Sweet Sixteen. 

Exuberant confidence to a steep decline 

Starting slow wasn’t an option for Monday night’s second round bout. The Terps took initiative and forced the Tide to chase them and earn a lead. 

Chase they did. 

In fact, they chased so fast, Turgeon had to sit three of his trusted starters and replace them with Galin Smith, Reese Mona and Jairus Hamilton to bring added energy. The decision proved to be detrimental, halting Maryland’s momentum and providing an opening for the Tide to annihilate their opposition. 

The production between the two lineups was day and night. The starting Terps exhumed confidence and were deliberate with every pass and off-ball cut — at one point converting seven straight field goals. All five of Maryland’s starters scored to start too. Hakim Hart, Darryl Morsell, Donta Scott, Wiggins and Eric Ayala all had points in the opening seven minutes. The defense, though not perfect, was deliberate in its own way, providing resistance at the rim along with three turnovers. 

The 18-12 lead they manufactured was promising but with the lack of stoppages, Turgeon felt like he had to make a change. His starters were gassed. 

“You gotta play your guys,” Turgeon said. “[We] only got a few of them. Got to play them, got to give them a chance.”

Suddenly the offense stagnated. Wiggins and Ayala were fending for themselves and playing one-on-one with their defenders. And it was clear Smith, Hamilton, and Mona didn’t offer the same movement and spacing as the trio they came in for. Four points and three turnovers later, Alabama was sitting with a five-point lead, riding a 15-4 run. 

Down 27-22 with nine minutes to go, Turgeon sat Smith, Mona, and Wiggins and returned Morsell, Scott and Hart to the lineup. But the damage had been dealt, the Tide were rolling and the roles reversed. Except this time, the Terps were forced to chase Alabama for the rest of the contest. 

Very rarely can a loss ever be attributed to one single happening during a game. Obviously, this instance isn’t an exception to the rule, but it serves as evidence of how pivotal some decisions can be. In this case, Turgeon’s first half subs may have offered a springboard for Alabama’s offense.

The end of an incredible late season battle. 

Indeed, this season’s ending was about as disastrous as some of its lowest moments — and there were many. But it was fitting that it ended at a crucial juncture in the postseason, during a year in which Maryland was unceremoniously counted out from its start. The Terps didn’t get the dignified finish to their grueling season that they may have hoped for, but as Turgeon noted after the game; this wasn’t a final four team. 

It was a team that exceeded its Big Ten expectations and somehow snuck its way into the Round of 32 to play the SEC champs for an opportunity to further its luck in the Sweet Sixteen. An opportunity that looked awfully obtainable for the first nine minutes. 

Barring the loss, the Terps finished strong and beat all odds this season, with it’s small lineup that never really snapped into shape until March. In spite of a 1-5 start in the conference, they stormed through some of the leagues — and nation’s — best, including; Illinois, Wisconsin and Purdue, allowing them to finish the regular season eighth in the Big Ten. 

There were also injuries that, though mostly sustained by Morsell, could have also stunted Maryland’s progression — but they didn’t. 

After fracturing his face bone and later his labrum that he played with through Maryland’s final eight games, Morsell showed resolve — just as his teammates did as they navigated their Big Ten gauntlet. It was that same determination that helped him earn Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors and it was an attitude that his teammates shared as they campaigned for his acquisition of the award. 

Teammates Morsell says are the grittiest he’s ever played with. 

“It’s so many adjectives to describe this team,” Morsell said. “We the smallest team and in the best conference in the world playing the best big men in the country that you could throw at us and we just kept fighting. I think we go down and my record books as the greatest team ever to put that Maryland jersey on.” 

The team’s leader on the sideline also shared a similar sentiment. 

“I think this team’s gonna be remembered for just unbelievable grit, unbelievable fight, unbelievable sacrifice,” Turgeon said. “I’m proud of every team. But this takes it to another level for me. I’ll always remember this team for what they went through and how hard we fought and we could have quit easily and never did.”

Truly a special team, during a special season, that found itself in a position that those outside the program never expected it to be in. 

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